Reading time: 3 – 5 minutes
Statistics is powerful stuff. When using cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses to assess well-being in over 5,000 adults over thirty years, researchers initially found that well-being decreases with age: older people are unhappier than younger people. But when the researchers controlled for birth cohort, they found that each individual’s well-being increased with age. Sure, the 70 year olds were less happy than the 50 year olds; but those 70 year olds were happier than they were when they were 50. The study is published in the journal Psychological Science.
The relationship between well-being and age has been far from clear. In some studies it has seemed to steadily decrease with age; in others, it goes up; and in still others, it peaks in mid adulthood and then starts to decline. It has been difficult to isolate out confounding factors of any of these observations: are they truly a result of aging and maturation, or are they dependent on social factors that are different for every generation?
In this study, the researchers exploited two very large data sets. They used 2,267 samples from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, which includes participants who were born between 1885 and 1980 and assessments from people aged 19-100 years old. Since data was collected between 1979 and 2010, this study can compare 60 year olds born in 1920 to 60 year olds born in 1950, and thus separate out the effects of absolute age from those of social factors experienced by individuals who lived at a particular time. Since this data set is comprised of highly educated individuals from a particular geographic area — and highly educated individuals generally score higher on tests of well-being than those who have not attained as high a level of education — the researchers also looked at a nationally representative sample of 3,004 adults. In both data sets, older adults were not as happy as younger ones but individuals consistently reported being happier as they aged.
Interestingly, each younger cohort reported a more positive outlook than the one that preceded it, even when individuals were measured at the same age. And people who lived through the Great Depression had significantly lower levels of well-being than those reared during flusher times, even when their well-being was measured decades later in their older age. The authors note that many things changed in the United States this century that might account for the increased optimism of the more recent cohorts: life expectancy went way up, infant mortality plummeted, the disease that afflict us have become chronic rather than acute, educational and economic opportunities abound, and social services were put into place to ensure a minimum standard of living for the elderly. Yet they conclude with a note of caution:
As young adults today enter a stagnant workforce, the challenges of high unemployment may have implications for their well-being that long outlast the period of joblessness. Economic turmoil may impede psychological, as well as financial, growth even decades after times get better.
Tips for a healthier and happier life
During a recent Business Insider interview, Dr. Mehmet Oz was asked what three things people could do today to start building a happier and healthier lives. He had three simple suggestions:
- Daily, vigorous physical activity. Leisure-time physical activity extends life expectancy.
- Eat real food, healthy food that comes out of the ground looking the way it looks when you eat it.
- Give your heart a reason to keep beating. Follow your passion.
- Sutin et al. The Effect of Birth Cohort on Well-Being: The Legacy of Economic Hard Times. Psychological Science published online 24 January 2013